Beauty Blooms from Muddy Waters: A Guide to Getting Unstuck

There is an ancient Buddhist value which espouses that the most beautiful things bloom from the muddiest of waters.

“Like a lotus flower that grows out of the mud and blossoms above the muddy water surface, we can rise above our defilements and sufferings of life.” {here is an associated meditation you can try}

Sometimes it takes a while to believe that and you often have to go through heartbreak, illness, or some kind of soul-shaking duress to realize it’s true. For me, the process of getting unstuck from that mucky bottom to the freedom of a sun-kissed surface goes a little something like this…

You lift one foot and it feels as heavy as a Clydesdale. You set it down only to feel it sink into the mud. You’re stuck, like your feet are frozen in a ice tray. You muster all your strength to free it from the tundra only to find that familiar weight again. And so it goes. A slow, slog through muddy waters until you get close enough to the shore that the ground beneath your feet is more compact, less exhausting and more forgiving. Pretty soon the water clears and you’re hitting your stride. One foot in front of the other. You’ll likely be tired, in need of some time to make the conscious and challenging choice to shake it off, but you’re reassured of your strength and perseverance all the same. After all, you didn’t sink; you didn’t drown; you made it. It’s not easy. In fact your journey, whatever adversity it stems from, kind of stings. You will survive. Yes you will be changed from it, but you will be okay because really you always were.


My advice for how to make it through this process, whatever the source of defilement or suffering?


Step 1: Stay busy. Schedule yourself silly. I don’t always recommend this given how little down time most of us allow ourselves but when you’re going through muddy waters you’ve got to create accountability that keeps you going. This should work great for all my fellow type-A, DC go-getters out there. Do. Many. Things. Distraction can be such a blessing in the initial fallout from getting rocked.

Step 1B: Move your body. Part of staying busy is IMHO not only doing but moving. What better time to take a yoga class that’s so challenging it takes you out of your head, or use a run or bike ride as a means to explore a different part of town? With spring fast approaching, outdoor activities are all the more appealing and the added bonus of doing anything on a sunny day is the boost of vitamin D (and mood lifting hormones) you’ll get. Just be sure to wear your sunscreen!

Step 2: Stay connected. Though it can be tempting to check out or turn in, don’t. The more you shut yourself off to the world the harder it becomes to open up again. Make dates to see girlfriends, join a running group, see if you can be helpful to a friend who needs a babysitter, volunteer, foster a dog then take that puppy to a local dog park, visit friends in other cities, go home to see family – the list goes on and on. As my 21-year-old self decided to get tattooed in grand scale across my back years ago, Nit Nitay Garabam, or, “a person is a person’s remedy.” Your friends, family and community will be there for you. Be kind enough to lean on them. [P.S. I still love this tattoo. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me the coolest 21st birthday present a gal could ask for! And thanks Yasmeen for helping me get the Wolof script Arabic right! ]

Step 3: Create something. Anything. Whether it be doodling in an adult coloring book, journaling, trying to figure out the choreography to Beyoncé’s “Formation” in your bedroom late at night (who would do such a thing…), or any number of other creative outlets, find something that is a form of expression and go express yourself. It’s incredibly cathartic. Try it.

Step 4: Get outside yourself. Give back to your local and/or at-large community. Find a cause that speaks to you and get involved. When you pour yourself into something entirely not for or about you, it gives great perspective on everything that you still have in your life to be grateful for. Need some ideas? Try Volunteer Match or Idealist as a place to get you started.

Step 5: Turn inside. No, this is not me encouraging you to indulge in self-analysis. We all pour over the details of injury, illness, heartache, loss, abuse, and other muddy topics just fine on our own. The kind of internal discovery I’m suggesting is of the more mindful variety: meditation. Meditation helps us walk through our inner landscape and make peace with all the scary monsters and gentle giants that lie within. As one of my favorite yoga teachers once recounted, mindfulness meditation helps us make the neighborhood of our minds a friendlier place. There are countless approaches to meditation, but I recommend starting with loving kindness meditation. Also known as Metta Meditation, the practice of loving kindness is a pathway to forgiveness and moving on. It can be challenging, but with time it helps to evoke an overall sense of warm-heartedness and compassion which can be lost in times of struggle. Mindfulness meditation is another great way to go. Rather than letting yourself become distracted by nagging thoughts and self-judgement, it encourages us to acknowledge whatever it is that’s paining us, feel it, and breath beneath it to the seed of calm that always exists at the core of our being. It may sound far fetched, but at this point it’s scientifically proven.

This “guide to getting unstuck” isn’t something to follow to a T. You don’t have to do all of these things, follow this pathway in order, or do anything that doesn’t feel right or helpful to you. These are merely suggestions. Sometimes all we need is an approachable yet actionable idea to get us up and moving again. I know that all of these steps have at one point or another helped me get back on solid ground again in the aftermath of life’s curveballs. I hope they help you as well.

When you’re stuck, all you need to do is the next right thing. And then the next right thing. And then the next…and so on, until eventually you feel safe and strong in your own skin again. It’s a continuum and it’s hard to say exactly when those small steps amount to an overall shift where you feel whole again. Therein lies the beauty of our struggles. Every moment we have a choice. We can choose to harden or soften; to shutdown or feel; to close our heart or open to vulnerability. If we approach the hard stuff breath by breath, hour by hour, day by day it starts to feel a lot less daunting and we can pick our own path of resilience to climb out of the muck.

Dear Cowardly Lion, You’ve Already Got Your Courage

Sometimes I feel like the Cowardly Lion, searching for courage while overwhelmed by fear. Most of my fear is the fear of what I can’t control, or more pertinently, of not knowing what comes next during times of transition. This spring is certainly a test of my courage. Did I mention I’m opening a yoga studio? Thus far I haven’t let the fear of taking this leap onto my still-under-construction Yellow Brick Road paralyze me. In fact, as the Cowardly Lion learned in the Wizard of Oz, it’s been the act of welcoming, facing and ultimately embracing my fears about this adventure that makes me feel like my most courageous self.

Cowardly LionIn one of my all-time favorite TED Talks, Brené Brown illuminates the link between opening to uncertainty, letting vulnerability arise and finding your courage. She points out that so many of us equate vulnerability with weakness. Vulnerability means scary things like externalizing uncertainty and relinquishing control. Who likes to do that? Admittedly me, and I’d venture to guess a fair amount of you out there as well. It’s not easy to let go. That’s why courage means being brave enough to be vulnerable; to not numb yourself, which is so much easier than to feel sometimes; to love someone with your whole heart even when there’s no guarantee you’ll get it back; to believe you’re worthy of love and connection; and ultimately, to believe you are already whole, perfectly imperfect and enough.

If you reject vulnerability and choose to selectively numb yourself you can’t connect with other people. You can’t realize we’re all going through battles and we all need love and compassion. As Brené says, “connection is what gives purpose and meaning to all our lives […] it’s why we’re here.” To connect with others in any meaningful way you have to expose yourself, the good and the bad.

When you let yourself be vulnerable you might crumble a bit. That’s what happens when you put yourself out there, face your insecurities and accept who you are. For some, surrendering to vulnerability might be quite graceful through a means like meditation or yoga, while for others it might be a knockdown, drag-out internal brawl. Those people are likely the same ones that define vulnerability as weakness. No matter where you start from, taking baby steps, practicing awareness and slowly opening to uncertainty and feeling, means you’ll grow stronger with a chance to rebuild and renew yourself.

Cowardly LionThis idea of renewal and starting fresh always makes me think of one of my favorite Rumi quotes:“Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are.” 

Letting down your guard, embracing that you’re a work in progress (as we all are) allows you to open to possibility. It can be uncomfortable but the most courageous amongst us use discomfort as an opportunity for awakening. You have to stay with discomfort. Sit with it. You have to feel it—and fear and all your other insecurities and perceived shortcomings—to break free from what’s preventing you from living a whole-hearted life. You have to familiarize yourself with vulnerability to eventually make friends with it.

It isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really freaking hard work. Eventually though, you’ll come to trust that sometimes when your let things fall apart—whether by a little or a lot—it creates space for something or someone even stronger, more confident and more courageous to arise.